84.8, 65.3, 58.9. No, those are not random numbers. Those are numbers that paint a clear picture of the slow-burn regression of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The aforementioned numbers represent the average rushing yards per game for Elliott over the last three years—years that have not been kind to the former All-Pro and have raised questions about his workload within the Dallas offense this fall. His decreasing per-game rushing totals stretch all the way back to his rookie campaign in 2016. Enough is enough and it’s about time we have an honest conversation about Elliott’s place alongside the NFL’s elite ball carriers. It’s a fallacy and a soft-spoken narrative that has been glanced over due to his uniform threads.
Working behind one of the top offensive lines since the turn of the century during his first few years in the NFL, Elliott often found himself untouched and unscathed until he was face to face with the closing safety. A downhill thumper whose bulldozing style of play complemented his above-average agility out of Ohio State, using a top-five pick on the former Buckeye immediately saw Dallas reap the benefits of his fundamental talent and traits at the running back position. 1,631 yards (5.1 yards a pop) with 15 touchdowns as a 21-year-old rookie? That made Jerry Jones look like a genius. But, how much of that was created by Elliott alone?
Looking back to the last trio of seasons, we’ve been provided a unique glimpse into just how limited Elliott is as a true game-breaking talent. The success of the running back spot remains in direct correlation to the ability and push of the front five — see Saquon Barkley in New York — and the shuffling of bodies along Dallas’ front over the last few seasons and this spring has coincidentally turned the attention toward the Cowboys’ featured ball carrier.
Looking back as far as 2020, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz all spent time on the shelf, each of them with connotations to start as Dallas approached Week 1 during the COVID-stricken season. They were a mangled group with rotational pieces in Joe Looney, Terence Steele, and Connor Williams, who, in retrospect, played relatively well considering the circumstances around him. As bad as that sounds, it doesn’t include Travis Frederick’s retirement, who was the most dominant center in football, who played next to one of the top guards in the league, who played next door to one of the league’s top tackles. It also doesn’t include La’el Collins, who missed the entirety of the season due to a nagging hip injury (and is now a Cincinnati Bengal). Their afflictions limited everything Dallas did or didn’t do, on the offensive side of the football, leading to a 6-10 record.
In Weeks 2-5 of that season, Dallas was a juggernaut on offense, scoring 30-plus points in each of its respective matchups. The offensive line injury bug ultimately remained cocooned before it began to rear its ugly head as the Cowboys approached the second half of the season. Both Smith and Collins were placed on season-ending injured reserve following the Week 9 matchup against Pittsburgh; Cameron Erving and Brandon Knight missed time; Steele was thrown to the wolves; and despite it all, Williams served as a lone bright spot starting every game up front for a unit that allowed 44 sacks, 21 more than in 2019.
The transformation of the unit had its trickle-down effect with Elliott totaling a career-low in rushing yards (979) and yards per carry (4.0) while tying his career-low in touchdowns (6) and fumbles (6). It was an abysmal year up front for Dallas and even with the core group of linemen in Martin and Smith back for the 2022 season, what is it to say the injury bug won’t strike again — or simply the fact of another season in pads could add increased wear to the tires of the two potential Hall of Fame offensive linemen who both have logged more than 100 career starts and are on the bad side of 30 years old?
Although a 12-win season last fall masked holes in the roster that Dallas failed to plug this offseason, it was all for naught without any playoff success to hang your hat on for Cowboys Head Coach Mike McCarthy. As history often tends to repeat itself, regression could continue for Elliott, who is set to make $12.4M this year in the fourth season of his six-year, $90M extension. While Smith and Martin remain in the trenches and Elliott’s 1,000-yard-plus season last fall looks good on paper, Dallas’ front isn’t the front of yesteryear. With Tony Pollard breathing down his neck for snaps, Elliott enters an overwhelmingly massive campaign when it comes to his future in Dallas.
- Jun 28, 2022
- Jun 28, 2022